I cannot continue living in metaphor: A Conversation with Karisma Price about I’m Always So Serious — curated by Tiffany Troy

Karisma Price is the author of the debut poetry collection I’m Always So Serious (Sarabande Books, 2023). Her work has appeared in Poetry, Four Way Review, Wildness, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem and New York University, was a finalist for the 2019 Manchester Poetry Prize, and awarded The 2020 J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize from The Poetry Foundation. She is from New Orleans, LA, and holds an MFA in poetry from New York University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Tulane University.

I’m Always so Serious is a collection that will stun you, that will haunt you, that will leave you in tears but also with the courage to move on, with the knowledge that the poet cares that “you are cared for.”

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “Self-Portrait,” set up the rest of the collection that follows?

Karisma Price: A part of me thinks that this is up for the reader to decide because I know each reader has their own interpretations of the poems and the collection as a whole. However, I hope the themes of family, anxiety, home, and grief are apparent in the first poem and situate the reader in the physical landscape of New Orleans. I remember taking a class my first semester at NYU where when we read a poet’s collection, we would always do an in-depth analysis of the first poem, and I was taught that the first poem usually introduces us to the more prominent themes that we’ll return to throughout the rest of the collection.

Also, I’d like to note that my “Self-Portrait” poem is after the poet Chen Chen’s “Self-Portrait With & Without.” I love Chen’s use of repetition and I love list poems in general. I placed this poem at the front of the book because I wanted to list different scenarios without worrying how to “get there” through transitional phrases.

TT: Can you describe the process of writing this collection?

KP: I wrote most of the collection—well, what has survived it—as a graduate student and it’s ultimately a very revised version of my graduate thesis. Although I knew I was going to have to write a thesis at the end of my program, I wasn’t focused on trying to force that thesis into being my first book. I knew I liked what I was writing at the time and had hoped that some of them would make it into a book one day, but honestly, I was more focused on writing individual poems. I realized after I had written several poems that I was meditating on similar themes and particularly my southern upbringing and wanted to mold that into something special. I’ve learned as a writer that our work usually reveals our obsessions whether we are conscious of them or not.

TT: How did you organize the poems into its three sections?

KP: The ordering of the collection changed several times. Ultimately, I split the book into three sections to move the reader from an individual to a collective history. Throughout the collection I meditate on kinship that isn’t limited to blood relations. The first section is really family-heavy and aims to establish the speaker’s background and origin. The second section is very music-heavy and uses figures in media and history to further analyze kinship, and gives the reader a broader view of blackness, history, and pop culture. The third section, hopefully, feels like a mixture of sections 1 & 2 and reunites the reader with the speaker from section 1 but is not limited to one voice.

TT: There are recurring sections and poems with the same title (such as the eponymous “I’m Always So Serious”). What do you hope for the readers to gain from the variations in the repetition?

KP: I wrote the first “I’m Always So Serious” poem being a little tongue-in-cheek. A lot of people think I am more serious than what I really am. I’ve often been told that I have a mean resting face. I don’t think I should have to smile to please people or pretend I’m overjoyed. That’s just my face. But I also feel like a lot of people are uncomfortable with things that aren’t just “happy.” Hearing that I’m so serious so often (as if it’s a bad thing), I decided to write a poem about it. The first poem I ever wrote with that title didn’t make it into the book, but it felt like a steppingstone for the rest of the “serious” poems. I think the others are far more interesting than the first one.

In regard to repetition, when you repeat something, it takes on a new meaning without having to change its wording. These poems do talk about a variety of serious issues, and I felt that they might be easier for the reader to digest if they all have the same title. I also wanted, as a personal exercise, to start with the same words to see if I could get a different result.

TT: How does form inform your collection? The poems are formally inventive–and some are more experimental than others–can you describe whether for you, if the form finds the poem or vice versa?

KP: I’m a big fan of trying different things on the page and I never want to stick with one way of writing. I notice when I write drafts of poems (I mean when I’m typing up the poem. I always start writing by hand), I always draft them in couplets or in one long stanza. Now, I love couplets and long stanzas—don’t get me wrong—but I don’t want to feel like I’m writing the same thing all the time. When I first experimented with form, I didn’t like it because I thought it would hinder my creativity, but once I learned how to write in certain forms and how to break the forms, it became fun to play with. Form forces my brain to think differently. Also, form for me depends on the individual poem. I know that I am very purposeful when it comes to repetition—whether that’s repeating phrases, sounds, images, etc.—but the poem will tell you what it needs and wants to be. Your poem is always smarter than you.  

TT: How do you envision your speaker or yourself as a poet speaking to the canon that came before? Same question but for family history, political history, mythology and the geography of New Orleans and/or New York?

KP: I guess it would depend on which cannon we’re referring to. While I acknowledge that I do incorporate Greek Mythology in my work, I think what some people call “The Literary Canon” is a Eurocentric canon that excludes voices of color and writers with other marginalized identities. I’m a firm believer in every writer creating their own personal canon and literary family tree. I consider the poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Natasha Trethewey, and Lucille Clifton as members of my canon/poetry family tree. I love the way they meditate on love, kinship, and race. I genuinely hope my work positively contributes to that canon, I hope I’m making the south proud, and I hope that my writing speaks to Black people and that it feels nuanced and authentic.

TT: How do divas and songs influence the inflections and movement of your poems?

KP: For me music has taught me that it’s sometimes more important how you make a sound instead of just focusing on the sound itself. Songs can tell a complex story with repetition and simple words, and a big reason for that is because those words work hand in hand with the melody. For example, you might be listening to a song about a breakup and not be going through a breakup, but when you hear the plea of a sad voice over a minor chord, you can still empathize. It makes you think back to when something or someone broke your heart even if that situation wasn’t a romantic one. The song then becomes relatable and accessible. Sound, repetition, alliteration, etc. can influence feeling in poetry. I know my reader probably hasn’t experienced everything the speaker has gone through, and isn’t always going to know everything that’s going on in my poems, but I hope the sounds and images that I create will keep the poem accessible and makes the reader want to stay along for the ride.

In regard to divas, you and I were in Deborah Paredez’s Diva class, and I started writing drafts of the James Booker poems in her class. There’s a flamboyance and confidence that comes with being a “diva” which I think can only exist if there’s also vulnerability present in the singer/speaker. Divas (many of them, but James Booker in particular) taught me you must leave a piece of yourself on the stage (in the poem) so people can really “see” you. Also, sidenote: if you want a masterclass on technicality and precision, YouTube a video of him playing the piano and watch his fingers move.

TT: Any closing thoughts for your readers of the world?

KP: Thank you for reading! We have only one life and I’m glad we get to spend time together via my poems.